Athletics: Pidgeon sees a long road leading to London

Gateshead a gateway for the 2012 Olympic generation
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The Independent Online

At the last count, there were 12 Olympic gold medallists due to compete in the second Golden League meeting of the season at the Stade de France last night. The chances are that there were an Olympic champion or two in action at Gateshead International Stadium yesterday. It just remains to be seen which of the star pupils from the 76th Sainsbury's English Schools' Track and Field Championships actually graduate to the top of the Olympic class on home ground in London six years hence.

One year on from London's victory in the bidding stakes, the pressure is on to unearth a golden generation of British athletes for 2012. Hence the presence of the massed ranks of the British Athletics Writers' Association on the banks of the Tyne rather than the Seine - and, more importantly, of Daley Thompson, in his new role as mentor to potential champions of the future.

Thompson himself is one of the 24-carat commodities that British track and field has plucked from the gold mine of "the English Schools". Even the also-rans among the 1,600 competitors can prove to have a Midas Olympic touch. No lesser soul than the chairman of London 2012 would testify to that.

As a 14-year-old representing Yorkshire at Crystal Palace in 1971, Sebastian Coe finished last in his heat in the junior boys' 1500 metres. Two years later he won the intermediate boys' 3,000m at the Bebington Oval, the track used by David Puttnam in Chariots Of Fire.

The record books show that S Coe of Yorkshire subsequently scorched to Olympic 1500m gold in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1984. They also confirm similar journeys from English Schools' to Olympic glory by Steve Ovett of Sussex, Francis "Daley" Thompson of London, Sally Gunnell of Essex. Jonathan Edwards of Somerset, Denise Lewis of the West Midlands and Kelly Holmes of Kent. The best that Linford Christie managed was second in the senior in the senior boys' 200m at Nottingham in 1979, although he did make up for the disappointment by winning Olympic 100m gold 13 years later.

Not that spotting the senior champions of tomorrow in the schools' champions of today is as easy as it might seem. For every Kelly Holmes who graduates through the system, there is a Lesley Kiernan, a Jo White and a Natalie Tait - to name three more likely middle-distance lasses than the future double Olympic champion appeared to be when she was an English Schools' winner.

At 17, Emily Pidgeon has been a highly likely lass for some time now. Last summer the girl from Cheltenham Ladies' College won the 5,000m title at the European Under-20 Championships at the age of 16. Yesterday, running in the senior girls' 1500m, she was a class apart, emerging a clear winner in 4min 18.24sec - her eighth success in English schools' track and cross country championships.

It remains to be seen whether Pidgeon can maintain her momentum all the way to 2012; the press are already in serious danger of exhausting the puns about such things as her getting off to a flier and getting the opposition in a flap. She happens to be a highly impressive individual, though, with a keen sense of perspective.

"Everyone says, 'You're so good in England', but if you want to be the best you've got to look at what the best in the world are doing," she said, keeping her eyes on the wider picture. "I don't think people realise how good the Africans are."

Pidgeon will discover that first-hand when she runs against the best of Africa at the World Junior Championships in Beijing next month. Before that, she gets the chance to gauge herself against the best of Britain's senior athletes on the track for the first time when she contests the 5,000m in the Norwich Union European Championship Trials and AAA Championships at Manchester next weekend. Her rivals include Jo Pavey, winner of the 3,000m at the European Cup in Malaga 11 days ago, and whose junior girls' 1500m record she broke in the English Schools' Championships three years ago.

Pidgeon's rivals on the road to 2012 are likely to include Sarah Hopkinson, her 14-year-old school-mate and training partner, who won the girls' 1500m at the World Schools' Games in Greece last weekend and who surged to an impressive win in the intermediate race at the same distance yesterday. Sprinter Ashlee Nelson and distance runner Steph Twell were others with a glint of golden promise in their stride.

Sadly, S Coe had to settle for second place in the intermediate boys' hammer. Then again, Sam Coe of Cumbria happens to have another sporting string to bow. He's already an England age-group international as a rugby player.